In his internationally bestselling 1997 novel, intriguingly titled “An Instance of the Fingerpost,” British author Iain Pears explored the murder of a 17th-century Oxford don via intricate plotting, ambitious structure, unreliable narrators and provocative ideas about Restoration-era politics and science.
In his subsequent fiction, Pears has displayed a similar flair for shifting viewpoints and historical periods, as well as obsessive research.
His latest, “Stone’s Fall,” is no exception. The title refers to a mysterious English industrialist named John Stone (given a peerage, and known as Lord Ravenscliff), who in 1909 drops out of a second-floor window in his home. It’s apparently an accident, but months before his death, Stone revises his will to instruct that 250,000 pounds (a staggering sum at that time) be left to his child.
The problem? He and his wife, Elizabeth, have no children. It’s left up to her to discover the identity of the child he never acknowledged, so that his final wishes can be carried out. On its surface, that’s a fairly straightforward plot for a mystery, but at 600 pages, the novel is anything but simple. (It would be unreasonable to expect such a thing from Pears, anyway.)
“Stone’s Fall” is daunting only in its length; though bogged down in parts, it is wonderfully accessible and entertaining. The narrative opens at a funeral in 1953 and is then divided into three sections, broadly moving backward in time from 1909 London, to Paris in 1890, to Venice in 1867, where the true account of Stone’s fall is finally revealed. Each section reads almost like a self-contained novel, but slowly various elements -- seemingly minor or disconnected -- converge to offer the full story. Because Pears’ characters excel at telling lies, it’s hard to discern throughout whether new information is useful or merely used to manipulate and distort the truth.
In the opening section, a 25-year-old newspaper reporter named Matthew Braddock is summoned to the house of Stone’s beautiful widow, Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, two weeks after Stone dies. She inexplicably hires the young man to find her husband’s child, who may or may not still be alive. Discretion is crucial, so if anyone asks, he’s to say that he is writing a biography of Stone and thus investigating his business and personal dealings. Almost immediately, Braddock is humbled in his pursuit of the facts. “You could spend the rest of your life learning about him, and still never find out everything,” a source counsels him. “Be careful of what you are getting involved in.”
Indeed, the man who fell from a window (or was he pushed -- perhaps by his wife?) oversaw an extraordinarily complex business empire: a newspaper, several banks, an investment company and 40 factories across Europe. Ravenscliff was also the most powerful arms manufacturer in the world, and his national loyalties appeared murky, if not up for sale. In the years leading to World War I, the baron proved eerily prescient, churning out battleships even though his government wasn’t placing any orders. He was essentially building his own battle fleet. As Braddock learns, Ravenscliff was quite entangled in international espionage and weapons dealing. “I was overcome by the scale of it all, by the power one man had created,” Braddock says. “Now, for the first time, I could see why all the descriptions of him were superlatives. Powerful, frightening, a genius, a monster. I had heard or read all of these. They were all true.”
The late magnate may also have been an early 20th century Bernard Madoff, with an empire that was really a house of cards. Before he died, his enterprises were burning through millions of pounds a year. Although official statements gave his shareholders one figure for profitability, the truth was that their nest eggs weren’t worth anything near what they thought. Braddock is on a mission to find out whether Ravenscliff was well aware of the discrepancies, if checks were diverted to his secret child, or perhaps to nefarious foreign sources. Braddock finds it curious that Ravenscliff’s estate is in limbo until his alleged child is found -- possibly the delay in disbursing funds is a convenient tactic. “Every time I added a nugget of information to my paltry hoard, it made the rest seem more confusing,” Braddock says.
Nearly everyone in the novel is a shady character: Lady Ravenscliff, whose past is anything but aristocratic, flirts with Braddock but refuses to become his lover; Theodore Xanthos, a devious high-level associate of Ravenscliff, might be trying to kill Braddock; and Henry Cort, a British spy who “has killed men, and ordered the deaths of others,” has a powerful but unknown connection to Elizabeth and her late husband. In fact, Cort was among the first at the scene of Stone’s death and may have removed documents that provide answers. It is Cort who narrates the novel’s second section, in which Stone becomes a more fully realized character. Finally, Stone offers his own voice in the third section, clearing up the obfuscations with his revelatory confessions. (The ending is well worth the long wait.)
“Stone’s Fall” is an entertainment in the best sense: thrilling, compelling, ambitious and smart. It demands slow reading (and even rereading) as the many pieces of this intricate puzzle masterfully come together.
Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of poetry anthologies, including, most recently, “First Loves” and “Solitude.”